Feb 1, 2009

Deliberate Practice makes an Expert

Just finished reading this paper (pdf) on research done by Dr. K Anders Ericsson and others on how something they have labelled “deliberate practice” is what separates eminent performers from good performers.

What is deliberate practice?

It’s the focused time and effort that people take that is used to address and develop areas of weakness. It is usually assisted by a teacher/trainer and the benefits are apparent when a performer starts early and slowly increases his/her times over a period of years.

The researchers found that to get to a level of eminence it takes almost a decade of practice – this holds true for people from across disciplines from sports like chess to tennis to musical genius. And being consistent in your practice is the key to development.

The researchers notice that deliberate practice is not glamorous. It is usually done alone or with a trainer/coach. It requires lots of hard work and their is no reward linked directly to practice – just the promise of reward that when one performs on the world stage one might be the best.

Deliberate practice also means getting access to the training/ learning resources and the best teachers. It also means having the unstinting support of your family to help you develop your domain expertise.

According to this article:

Tiger Woods is a textbook example of what the research shows. Because his father introduced him to golf at an extremely early age - 18 months - and encouraged him to practice intensively, Woods had racked up at least 15 years of practice by the time he became the youngest-ever winner of the U.S. Amateur Championship, at age 18. Also in line with the findings, he has never stopped trying to improve, devoting many hours a day to conditioning and practice, even remaking his swing twice because that's what it took to get even better.

What do you think can this research tell us about how to achieve success in organizations? In a sense one is ‘performing’ through the 10-12 hours of work that people put in – so how does one get the 5 hours of time for deliberate practice to sharpen their skills? And yet have the necessary time to recuperate from its mental and physical strain? The researchers note that deliberate practice must be only carried out until can do it physically. Overdoing it would erode motivational levels and lead to burn out.

More on deliberate practice from the authors of Freakonomics:

the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers — whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming — are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of clichés that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular clichés just happen to be true.

Ericsson's research suggests a third cliché as well: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love — because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't "good" at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better.